****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring Tom Bateman, Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe
screenplay by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. If he wants two hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, they must be the same size or he can't eat them. It's how he is. He steps in shit and then has to step in it with his other foot so his feet don't feel uneven. He has an illness, some rage for order and symmetry, you see, and while it makes him alone and miserable (though not unpleasant), it also makes him the best detective in the world. Agatha Christie's enduring creation Hercule Poirot, when portrayed in the past by actors like David Suchet, Albert Finney, and, most famously, Peter Ustinov, has been a figure of some mirth: a cheery hedonist, someone at home in books by a legendary (and all-time best-selling) author mostly legendary for being an artifact of another generation. Christie's books were already growing elderly, I imagine, as they were being written. Her Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, has about it the musty upright fortitude of something from the 19th century. It should be no surprise that Kenneth Branagh, whose Shakespeare adaptations represent the first time I understood those plays completely (that "Hamlet" is a political drama, for instance, or that "Henry V" is a coming-of-age piece triggered in part by the tragedy of a mentor relationship long lamented), has interpreted Poirot as a man tortured by the chaos of modernity, and made him ultimately relatable not as a hedonist, but as a man who recognizes that the wellspring of great art is also the mother of justice. "I can only see the world as it should be... It makes most of life unbearable, but it is useful in the detection of crime." Teleos. Balance. And nothing in between.
His belief that there are such things as objective right and wrong have served him well, but the case presented him in Murder on the Orient Express is set to challenge his faith. At its heart, the film is about the difficulty of virtue's survival in a venal world. Justice is perverted if everything, everyone, has a price. And when there's no justice, even the virtuous become ambiguous. Over the course of one sleepless night, lightning strikes, an avalanche is unleashed, and the train finds itself stuck on a bridge stretched precariously over a viaduct. The glass in a framed picture of Poirot's beloved Catherine that he carries with him shatters. "I believe it takes a fracture of the soul to murder another human being," Poirot says, and the visual and thematic tightness of the piece begins to come into focus after a man is murdered a couple of berths down from Poirot's. Consider Branagh's use of mirrors and windows--how we see some passengers on the train through prisms and distortions, others with their reflections saying everything they're saying but, you know, backwards. It's a film that demands close attention, not to decipher the whodunit--because who cares who did it, really--but to appreciate the craft with which Branagh has built this confection. Poirot rhapsodizes over a pastry before boarding the Express. Its perfection is its pinwheel simplicity. Anything off axis and it would instantly offend the eye.
Murder on the Orient Express suggests that the consumption of great art is an escalating addiction. A little taste leads to a desire for more. The brain chemistry changes. It's like a drug. Maybe it's fatal. It is, at least, fatal to the appreciation of lesser works. What Poirot would like to do after the fun, rip-roaring prologue is take a little respite to "look at paintings and have too much time on my hands." He pleads with the master of the Express, his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), to recuse him from investigating the murder that happens while they're trapped in the grip of winter: "I need my rest..." Yet he consents, of course, because he's helpless in the face of his dysfunction. He begins to interrogate the suspects, each of whom seems to have some reason for wanting loathsome gangster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) dead. Watch, in particular, the grilling of Professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe) and how Branagh shoots over Poirot's shoulder, through a bifurcated glass, to see the good German refracted as three distinct faces. Immediately after, in a moment of exhaustion and existential terror, Poirot confides in Catherine's portrait his fear that the clues he's gathering are pointing to a conclusion that doesn't make any kind of moral sense. His feeling that there is an objective good and evil is shaken. "This is an abominable crime, and I am stuck, my Catherine. I cannot find the crack in the wall... I have always been so sure. Too sure. But now I am very humble and I say like a little child, I do not know. I am afraid, my Catherine." This passage, the position of the train, the way that Branagh ends the sequence with a boom in the night--snow settling, perhaps--and a crane shot outside the train that highlights its position on the edge of an abyss...all of it reminds of this bit from Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling:
If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness is beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?
Murder on the Orient Express wrestles with that sense of despair in this exact formulation of the universe. It's a nihilistic cosmology and the weariness underpinning the picture is testament to its fidelity to the idea. Poirot discovers that a crime modelled after the tragic Lindbergh baby kidnapping has hatched an elaborate plan between every one of the other passengers on the train. Poirot, wounded spiritually and physically, assembles his suspects in the mouth of a tunnel behind a long table--a recreation of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" that would not have been an accident for Branagh. The figure missing in the middle? Christ. Because the martyr in this formulation is Poirot himself. Just as the painting captures the moment immediately following Jesus's revelation that he is to be betrayed by Judas, this moment captures Poirot revealing how his desperate faith in order has betrayed him. It all ties together. These fellow travellers, sinners but essentially good, have in the murder of a child-killer revealed themselves to be guilty of nothing more than originally stained. Draw a parallel to Park Chan-Wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, another devastating work about the sliding scale of right and wrong. Listen to Patrick Doyle's score (Doyle made his feature debut alongside Branagh with Henry V) as Poirot puts the final pieces together and how it's describing a tragedy rather than a triumphant climax. Poirot's solution is fruit taken in Eden. How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.
It's easy to look past the fussy costume-drama surface of Murder on the Orient Express. "There was right, there was wrong, now there is you. I cannot judge this," Poirot says at the end of it all. He confesses a death wish. It's not that different from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's speech at the end of No Country For Old Men, talking about his father's shade coming to him in a dream and riding on ahead with a fire protected against his chest. There's that same melancholy and the same message that whatever nostalgia we have for a time when things made sense and the men who helped them make sense, that time is finished. Our heroes are wounded, diseased, dying of broken hearts and betrayal. The world doesn't work like it should. There isn't a god or any sort of unifying principle. The universe is capricious. Our souls are fractured and the scrim separating civilization from madness is thin and thinning. Poirot's closing narration is a letter to the widower at the centre of the case, dead from suicide following the loss of his wife and children. "My very existence depends upon this hope, upon order and method in these little grey cells," Poirot writes. But he finds himself needing to accept that the "scales of injustice cannot be evenly weighed," and that he must live with the imbalance. "May you find peace with this. May we all." Murder on the Orient Express is a beautiful film in every aspect of craft, but as is often the case with Branagh, its real power is in the intelligence and sensitivity, the humanity, of his interpretation of a classic. Hercule Poirot is a post-modern hero in one of the best movies of 2017.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bill Chambers Fox brings Murder on the Orient Express to 4K Ultra HD disc in a sumptuous 2.39:1, 2160p transfer. This is, I believe, the first feature photographed entirely on 65mm film to reach the format, and the image--sourced from a 4K D.I. and presumably retrofitted for conventional 'scope projection from its native 2.20:1 aspect ratio--manages to sustain the awe of the breathtaking first impression it makes, as a lens flare gives way to an overhead view of the Wailing Wall so tactile it feels vaguely taboo. (It isn't actually the real wall but rather a replica built in Malta.) The whiskers of Poirot's moustache beg to be tousled, while close-ups of Johnny Depp offer a study in the erosion of his matinee-idol looks well beyond the prosthetic scars he wears. A lack of moiré on tightly-patterned textiles seems impossible and miraculous. The addition of HDR10 imbues the sun-baked prologue with more 'heat' and the titular locomotive with a richer array of tones, inside and out, with its exterior's blue finish having a metallic depth that simply isn't there in SDR. Intriguingly, HDR, mostly thought of as a colour tool, also appears to benefit the black-and-white flashbacks, which aren't just strikingly crisp but sport eye-popping contrasts, too, auguring great things for an eventual roll-out of b&w classics in 4K. In the darkest interiors and nighttime establishing shots, blacks tend to blot and swallow up shadow detail, but these are few enough that they can be counted on one hand. The presentation is virtually grain-free, a perk of large-format lensing that translates to a stunningly, organically clear image.
An attendant Dolby Atmos track (replaced on the accompanying Blu-ray Disc by a 7.1 DTS-HD MA option) delivers matching roadshow thrills, even in its 7.1 Dolby TrueHD distillation/alternative. Although this is a dialogue-driven film, it's an acoustically conscientious/persuasive one--I love how voices dissipate outside in the snow--occasionally interrupted by truly robust sound design. The sidewall imaging as the train grinds to a halt is as fluid as the avalanche that stops it is seismic. Patrick Doyle's mournful score has an expansiveness that's like sitting in the centre of the orchestra. On another track, find an extremely convivial audio commentary with director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green, both of whom convey a healthy respect for and deep-cut knowledge of Agatha Christie's work (Branagh notes, for instance, that Christie describing not Poirot's moustache but his "moustaches" unlocked his unique take on the detective's facial hair) that makes their rationalizations for the many liberties they took with the source material all the more palatable. Branagh sings the praises of 65mm and its visceral qualities though oddly doesn't mention that he used it once before, on the 1996 Hamlet. He touches on its specific advantages during an overhead shot of Ratchett's corpse, saying he refused to do "C.S.I." inserts against the advice of execs because all the information the audience needed was contained in the frame. A discussion of how they arrived at Ratchett and Poirot sharing a fragilité meanwhile offers gratifying insight into how storytelling subtext and the ergonomics of filmmaking are often symbiotic. In an inclusive touch, Fox has provided optional English subtitles for this yakker.
Apart from the commentary, all of the supplementary material is relegated to the Blu-ray. This includes a cache of Laurent Bouzereau featurettes that are, for the most part, a cut above his usual filler. Start with "Agatha Christie: An Intimate Portrait" (19 mins., HD), featuring an assortment of Christie relatives and experts such as grandson Matthew Prichard, who seems to co-manage the Christie estate with his mother Rosalind (Hicks), the late author's daughter/biggest fan/harshest critic. We learn a little bit about Christie's life and process (the piece doesn't shy away from her failed first marriage, though neither does it shed light on that weird amnesiac period following her divorce), but mostly it's testimony to Christie's legacy, rife with photos that confirm she's exactly how you'd picture her alter ego, Ms. Marple. Incidentally, I severely doubt Depp's claim that he used to read Christie as a kid--like "Unusual Suspects" (18 mins. in toto, HD), a three-part cast breakdown that splinters the ensemble into men, women, and "diverse" (really a synonym for "international" in this case), it smacks of calculated PR, although Derek Jacobi warmly reflecting on meeting the 16-year-old Branagh is anything but hype. "The Art of Murder" (16 mins., HD) returns to Prichard, whose eyes practically become dollar signs as visions of the big names lined up to star in this new adaptation of Orient Express dance in his head. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne thoughtfully distinguishes the "vanity of precision" that informed Poirot's tailoring from your typical "peacock vanity," while production designer Jim Clay admits to taking artistic license with the compartment interiors, making each one reflect its inhabitant(s). Everyone involved trusts the material's strong bones to survive their prioritization of character.
"All Aboard: Filming Murder on the Orient Express" (17 mins., HD) is a more technical overview of an ambitious production that required Kodak to build a new lab in London capable of processing 65mm rushes. The most fascinating section explains the 2400-screen LED rig that was used for background plates (filmed in New Zealand), a solution to the problem of showing the Orient Express in motion that was likely far more convincing than the greenscreen alternative. (In camera tests, no one could tell the difference between this rear-projection apparatus and footage captured from inside an actual moving train.) Apropos of nothing, Judi Dench says, "Stabbing Johnny Depp. Terrible," in a sardonic pitch that those with English grandmothers will instantly recognize and appreciate. Lastly, "Music of Murder" (8 mins., HD) is mostly a fly-on-the-wall look at the recording of Patrick Doyle's score at London's AIR Lyndhurst Studios, a converted Victorian church. Doyle talks a lot but doesn't say much, hitting the same point about "an emotional journey" over and over. Nevertheless, he sees his music for the film as a benchmark in his ongoing collaboration with Branagh, and I'm inclined to agree.
A 17-minute block of HiDef deleted scenes scoops some surprisingly momentous cuts off the editing-room floor, including an alternate opening that shows the Armstrong family in happier times, framed slightly anachronistically as home movies. An extended version of the Arasta Bazaar sequence is quite lengthy and sees Branagh refusing champagne but accepting a cup of chocolate from Depp's Ratchett as the major players weave in and out of the foreground. The tone of it was perhaps too farcical, but for what it's worth, it's the closest thing I've seen to Robert Altman's style since Altman's passing. Three attempts to depict Poirot's bedtime rituals vary so minutely that I wish Branagh and/or Green had annotated these elisions with commentary as well. The loss of a dream sequence is perhaps self-explanatory, less because of the roughed-in effects (which convey a thematically sound use of kaleidoscopic imagery) than because it ends with Poirot already awake, dressed, and standing in the corridor of the Orient Express. What was this, a daymare? Two HiDef Murder on the Orient Express trailers, both alike in dignity, round out the Blu-ray Disc. The black, slipcovered keepcase also contains a digital copy of the film.